Monday, April 25, 2011

From the Slum to the Center: Robert Moses and the Creation of Lincoln Center

Today, Lincoln Center exists as one of the world's premier performance venues, a home to the New York City Opera, New York Philharmonic, New York City Ballet, and the Metropolitan Opera, among other world-renowned performance troupes. While the Center's notoriety may lend it a certain timeless quality, construction of the site only began a mere fifty-two years ago. Before President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke ground on the construction site in 1959, the land and its immediate surroundings were home to over 7000 residents of the neighborhood then called Lincoln Square. This transformation from so-called slum to cultural center is a prime example of the urban gentrification led by developer Robert Moses throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, it brings into focus the attitudes of city government towards racial and ethnic minorities during post-war era, and the effect of these attitudes on public policy at large.

Between 1950 and 1957, New York City lost over 750,000 white middle class inhabitants to the suburbs (Dodson, 1960). During the same period of time, the city witnessed a vast migration of black and Puerto Rican residents, totaling over 650,000 new Manhattan residents of these ethnic minorities (Dodson, 1960). In order to curb this rapid change in racial demographics, the city's government began to heavily employ the powers it was granted by the Housing Act of 1949, which included extended eminent domain to over densely populated areas deemed “slums” (“Slum Clearance,” 2005). After Robert Moses, a famed developer and close friend of New York Senator Robert Taft and Mayor Robert Wagner, named himself the chairman of the New York City Slum Clearance Committee that was warranted by Title I of the Housing Act of 1949, he began a city-wide push to rid the metropolis of the dense slums populated largely by black and Hispanic residents, and create more attractions to bring back the city's white middle class (“Slum Clearance,” 2005). One such effort was Lincoln Center, a proposed cultural center that would be made more accessible to white commuters via massive highways and parking lots. In order to create this cultural center, however, Moses faced one obstacle: the residents of Lincoln Square.

Lincoln Square

Lincoln Square, 1957

Before Moses proposed the site for the new Lincoln Center, the plot of land from West 59th Street to West 72nd Street between Central Park and the Hudson River was home to one of the largest black and Hispanic communities in Manhattan (Strausbaugh, 2008). It's center, San Juan Hill, is known as the birthplace of bebop and the Charleston, as well as the hometown of Thelonius Monk (Strausbaugh, 2008). The cultural history of Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill leading up to the construction of Lincoln Center are explored in depth in the following multimedia edition of The New York Times' Weekend Explorer from February 2008. Particularly interesting are the sections about the neighborhood's background (start through 3:07), interviews about Thelonius Monk (4:03 through 4:36), and childhood in San Juan Hill (6:12 through 6:45).

The community was so well known as Manhattan's center of black and Hispanic life that it served as the setting for the opening sequence of the film West Side Story (of course, as it's Hollywood of the late 1950s, all the hired extras are white).

Lincoln Square was composed mostly of tenement houses and industrial warehouses, and thus suffered a very densely packed population; often described as a "honeycomb," the neighborhood at its most congested held about 5000 tenants per square block (Strausbaugh, 2008). By 1955, Moses deemed the area a "blighted slum," and began proposing its demolition as part of an urban renewal effort ("Lincoln Square", 2009). Moses suggested an arts center in its place, promising new buildings to both the New York Philharmonic, Julliard, and the Metropolitan Opera ("Lincoln Square," 2009). In 1956, Moses appointed John D. Rockefeller III the president of the forthcoming Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, who assisted with the expedition the Lincoln Square urban renewal process both financially and through his powers of influence ("Lincoln Square," 2009).

A 1956 excerpt from the Lincoln Square Slum Clearance Program, released by Moses' Slum Clearance Committee

While the residents of Lincoln Square were able to resist by bringing their case to all the way to the Supreme Court, they were unable to undermine Moses' power of eminent domain that allowed him to demolish the neighborhood (Strausbaugh, 2008). Thus, when the Court approved the takeover of sixty-seven acres of land on July 1st, 1958, city officials instated a forced relocation plan among residents of Lincoln Square, dedicating July of 1958 through October of 1961 to the relocate about 3000 families and make way for Lincoln Center (Dodson, 1960). While the inhabitants were offered priority housing at a cooperative built in conjunction with the Lincoln Center project, not one of them accepted; instead, they found their own housing in other neighborhoods (52.7% of residents), were assigned apartments by the sponsors of Lincoln Center (28.4%), moved into public housing (11.6%), or left their apartments abandoned without any notice (7.3%) (Dodson, 1960). Most families were relocated to what Dan W. Dodson refers to as “neighborhoods in flux”—in other words, other densely packed slums that were mostly populated by poor laborers of color—such as Harlem and certain areas of the Bronx (Dodson, 1960).


Proposed Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Plan, 1958

On May 14, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke ground on the construction site of Lincoln Center, in an elaborate ceremony attended by thousands and covered by television and radio media ("Groundbreaking," 2009). The ceremony, which included performances by opera stars Risë Stevens (seen here singing Carmen's habanera) and Leonard Warren (seen here singing the notoriously challenging "Largo al Factotum" from "The Barber of Seville"), as well as the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, marked the beginning of construction for Lincoln Center.

Dwight D. Eisenhower making that first dig, 1959

Under the design of architect Max Abromovitz of Harrison & Abromovitz, laborers spent the following three years constructing Philharmonic Hall (now called Avery Fisher Hall), the iconic main building of Lincoln Center ("Philharmonic," 2009). The hall was accompanied by a parking garage, created to bring in white suburban commuters from nearby New Jersey and Connecticut. On September 23, 1962, the Hall opened with a gala concert attended by Jackie and John F. Kennedy, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk ("Philharmonic," 2009). Over the next forty-two years, Lincoln Center would continue to grow, building the New York State Theater, the Metropolitan Opera House, Alice Tully Hall, and the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts, and becoming one of the most renowned arts center.

The Means and the End

In the comparison of the demolition of Lincoln Square and the construction of Lincoln Center, a question can be put forward: was it worth it? Was the destruction of one cultural center worth the much more renowned success of another? While Moses' actions concerning Lincoln Square may be in part a result of the racism of himself and his fellow city government officials--not to mention a contributing factor to the consolidation of blacks and Hispanics in Harlem and areas in the outer boroughs--they still were the cause of the return of those with high income to Manhattan. And, as the argument follows, with income comes industry, with industry comes jobs, and with more jobs, a greater number of people are able to maintain at least a decent standard of living. Moses' use of eminent domain to transform a minority neighborhood into an elite cultural center geared towards the white and wealthy may not have been exactly ethical (or, at the very least, politically correct by modern standards), but it was essential to bringing back capital to New York City.


Works Cited
Dodson, Dan W. "Family and Agency Equity in Urban Renewal." Journal of Educational Sociology 34.4 (1960): 182-89. JSTOR. Web. 25 Apr. 2011.
"Groundbreaking Ceremony." Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. 2009. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.
"Lincoln Square Chosen for Redevelopment." Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. 2009. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.
"Philharmonic Hall Opens." Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. 2009. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.
"Slum Clearance." PBS KIDS: Educational Games, Videos and Activities For Kids! Channel Thirteen/WNET, 2005. Web. 25 Apr. 2011.
Strausbaugh, John. "Weekend Explorer: Cradle for Serious Grooving." The New York Times. 01 Feb. 2008. Web. 25 Apr. 2011.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Frank Capra, Socialism, and the American Hero

As director of such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, and It's a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra plays an essential role in the reinterpretation of American mythology following the Great Depression. Capra creates his own brand of American Hero: the honest small-town man forced to combat a corrupted system in order to best provide for the greater public. However, contrary to the more capitalist fashioning of the American Hero as a rags-to-riches individual, Capra portrays the Hero as inextricably connected to his community, a man who simultaneously acts as a communal savior and relies the community for validation and meaning. Capra even states this rather explicitly through the conclusion of It's a Wonderful Life:

"No man is a failure who has friends."

While Capra was a staunch anti-Communist activist, the content of his films—the villanizing of bankers and government bureaucrats, the portrayal of community as the site of moral redemption—are often characterized by a sharp undercurrent of socialism. The ideology in his films and characterization of the American Hero proved popular with American audiences in the early and mid-1930s; as the decade wore on, however, Capra's films became less and less appreciated, grossing lower box-office revenue and receiving criticism from both the film community and the federal government. What, then, changed in the thirteen years between 1933, when Capra released his first film Lady for a Day, and 1946, when It's a Wonderful Life was released to almost no box-office revenue? As Capra's protagonists are the products of a socialist envisioning of the American Hero, their relevance to the American public fluctuated with the general sentiment toward socialism. Capra's films were most successful when many Americans saw socialism, or some of its elements, as a solution to the national woes of the Great Depression. In the years directly before and during America's participation in World War II, however, Capra's films underwent much more scrutiny, as they seemed to promote the ideology of a potentially dangerous foreign power.

The Hero's Journey

The narratives of the many incarnations of Capra's American Hero often take the same route. First, a young, idealistic man falls suddenly into a professional or financial position in which he is at great risk to be taken advantage of. Consider the following clip from Capra's 1936 film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, in which greeting card writer and tuba player Longfellow Deeds inherits $20 million and is forced to leave his small town of Mandrake Falls to live in New York City alongside a team of scheming lawyers:

Here, Capra's dichotomy between the supportive rural community and the conniving urban lawyers is made incredibly clear: the townspeople, cheering en masse around their tuba-playing golden boy Longfellow Deeds, stand in stark contrast to the suit-clad, cigar-toting New York lawyers. The lawyers are already implicitly vilified by their financial extravagance; their wealth is portrayed as a symptom of their corruption, not the result of hard work. The unapologetically-drawn connection between concentrated wealth and moral decay, a common theme in Capra's films, is particularly reminiscent of socialist ideology, echoing Karl Marx's assertion of the “disastrous effects” and “dissolution of moral bonds” caused by the “crying inequalities in the distribution of wealth” (Marx, 1848).

After becoming entrapped into a system of greed and deceit, the Hero is forced to fight against the corrupted powers. He does so not to avenge the misdeeds performed against him, but rather, in the name of his community. Take, for example, the following from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which small-town senator Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, gives a final speech to the corrupt Washington elite (the speech begins at the 1:05 mark):

Smith's argument against the current state of the government revolves around one principle forgotten by the bureaucrats: “Love thy neighbor.” Though the words are taken from a religious text, they still reinforce the socialist idea of public service before self-service. Corruption, Capra here asserts, is a result of the disconnection between those in power and the common man. Morality can only be restored when the greater public regains some of this power, and Capra's American Hero has the great responsibility to lead this movement. In the most telling example, Capra concludes Mr. Deeds Goes to Town with Longfellow Deed's decision to give up his exorbitant inheritance in order to avoid the crooked city life. He does not, however, simply give the money away; instead, he buys a farm for each family in poverty-stricken Mandrake Falls. This action reads clearly as a redistribution of property, a direct response to Marx's claim that “property relations” between the powerful and the powerless are “the conditions for existence of the bourgeoisie and its rule” (Marx, 1848).

A Public in Need of a Savior

After the mass destruction of the Great Depression at the hands of bakers and Wall Street financiers, many Americans became much more inclined toward socialist ideology. Through it had previously been dismissed as an example of ideological extremism, the American Communist Party began to enter the mainstream as they endorsed President Roosevelt's legislative agenda in 1935 (Brinkley, 2010). The party even began to market itself as the savior of modern America, using the slogan “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism” (Brinkley, 2010).

While the American Communist Party represented the most outwardly socialist organization, elements of socialist ideology—that power should be returned to the workers, that wealth should be distributed equally—found their way into public and political discourse. Louisiana Senator Huey Long's proposed Share-Our-Wealth Plan, for example, sought to use the tax system to take excess money from the upper classes, using the funds to assure that each household would have a $5,000 “homestead” and an annual $2,500 salary (Brinkley, 2010). Long's plan was so popular with the American public that a poll taken in the spring of 1935 suggested he could win a full 10% of the vote as a third party candidate.

That same year also brought another breakthrough in legislation tinged with socialist ideology: the Wagner Act. This law created the National Labor Relations Board, an organization which forced employers to recognize unions as legitimate, thereby giving greater power to the workers (Brinkley, 2010). The congressional and public support of the Wagner Act suggests that socialism, or socialist ideas, were not a threat in the mid-1930s; on the contrary, they were seen as the likely salvation of a depressed economy.

It is for this reason that Mr. Deeds Goes to Town resonated so profoundly with American audiences in 1936. The film, for which Capra won an Oscar for Best Direction, was a monumental box-office success, grossing less than only one other film in the history of American cinema up to that point: Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (Carney, 1986). This popularity was a result of the the Capra's understanding of the new moral alignment that arose the wake of the Great Depression: that corporations, financiers, and the wealthy elite are inherently corrupt; and that the hardworking, community-oriented man is the soldier for good.

Turning Point

As the decade wore on, however, and the rest of the world surged into war, Americans became much more weary of socialism. As there was an incredible amount of turmoil abroad—government takeovers, transnational invasions, civil wars—many Americans sought to maintain their own country's stability. Thus, an ideology preaching complete overturn of wealth and power lost popularity among the American public.

In 1940, the President signed into law the Smith Act, which allowed the government to imprison any person who distributes written or verbal communication advocating the overthrow or destruction of the United States government (Johnson, 1958). This law was deliberately used to target political outliers, especially socialist activists. Socialism had lost favor with the greater American public since the 1939 nonaggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, when the American Communist Party resumed its sharp criticism of the American governmental system and abandoned its positive reputation in exchange for a more threatening one (Brinkley, 2010). As a result, thousands of Americans left the party, further adding to the growing sensation of suspicion surrounding the socialist ideology (Brinkley, 2010). The Smith Act was simply a reaction to this suspicion. In 1941, the first major trial under the Smith Act prosecuted members of the Minneapolis Socialist Workers Party and union workers (Johnson, 1958). Through the Smith Act, socialists were positioned as a threat to national security; they were not simply advocates for change, but rather, mercenaries sent to collapse the American way of life.

It was during this period that Capra's films began to come under fire. His 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was cautioned by Joseph Breen, director of the censorship office of the MPAA, that before the film is produced, it should address the following concern:

"the generally unflattering portrayal of our system of Government, which might well lead to such a picture being considered, both here, and more particularly abroad, as a covert attack on the Democratic form of government" (Maltby, 2003).

Here, it becomes clear that in the wake of World War II, Capra's American Hero has become a terrorist. He no longer fights against the corrupted system for the good of the common man; he threatens the strong America, finding and exploiting weakness in order to create chaos. While the film still grossed well in the box-office, it was still considered by critics and the public alike to be controversial, a label it may have avoided had it been produced five years earlier (Dirks, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)").

By the end of the war, however, Capra's imagining of the American Hero had ceased to be a threat; rather, he had become completely irrelevant to American life. Though the movie is ironically the most time-tested of Capra's films, his 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life was virtually ignored by moviegoers at the time. It was a verifiable failure at the box-office, its revenue paling in comparison to that of his other films (Dirks, "It's a Wonderful Life (1946)"). After World War II, Capra's heroes and villains—the honest community man and the greedy banker—seemed dated, ghosts of the Great Depression unable to again make themselves relevant. In 1947, the Oscar-winning picture was William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, a film documenting the lives of men home from their service in World War II ("19th Academy Awards (1947)"). The difference between this film and Capra's of the same year clearly conveys the transition of American mythology between the 1930s and 1940s: after the war, the hero is the man who fights enemies abroad, not at home.

Works Cited

Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation: a Concise History of the American People. Vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. Print.

Carney, Raymond. American Vision: the Films of Frank Capra. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986. Print.

Dirks, Tim. "It's A Wonderful Life (1946)." Greatest Films: The Best Movies in Cinematic History. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. .

Dirks, Tim. "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)." Greatest Films: The Best Movies in Cinematic History. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. .

Johnson, Claudius O. "The Status of Freedom of Expression Under the Smith Act." The Western Political Quarterly 11.3 (1958): 469. JSTOR. Web. 27 Mar. 2011.

Maltby, Richard. Hollywood Cinema: an Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. Print.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

"The 19th Academy Awards (1947)." Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Web. 27 Mar. 2011.